Teenage Drunk Driving Laws and Consequences

More than 3000 teenagers die every year in drunk driving accidents. Further, the rate of alcohol-related automobile accidents is higher for drivers between the ages of 16-20 than it is for adults over the age of 21. The rate is higher for teenagers because teenagers are generally inexperienced with alcohol, they take greater risks, and they exercise less caution. Teenagers put themselves and others in a grave amount of danger when they get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence. It is for these reasons that the laws and penalties for teenage drunk driving are tough throughout the country.

Zero Tolerance Laws for Teenage Drunk Driving

Zero-tolerance laws were introduced in the early 1980s in reaction to the high level of teenage drunk driving injuries and deaths across the country. Because of the seriousness of teen drunk driving and in response to federal financial incentives, all states have now implemented zero-tolerance laws. Zero-tolerance laws have two components. The first component is Illegal per se laws; per se means in and of itself. This means that if a minor under 21 years of age is caught driving with a negligible percentage of alcohol in his or her blood, they will be arrested for a DUI immediately.  

Some states will charge a minor with a DUI if the blood alcohol limit is over 0.00 percent. Most states set their zero-tolerance laws at 0.02. This is different from the laws for adults where a 0.08 level of alcohol is required for a DUI. The second component of the zero-tolerance laws is the administrative per se laws. This means that if the minor is caught driving with any level of alcohol in the system, their license will be automatically suspended or revoked by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV).

These penalties are in addition to whatever penalties the court imposes. Zero-tolerance laws have been subject to criticism by people who believe that the laws unfairly punish minors who may be bringing home an intoxicated friend. However, zero-tolerance laws have proven to be an effective sanction for minors, and since they have been implemented, the rate of teenage deaths and injuries in automobile accidents has gone down. Having a license is after all, the ultimate statement of independence for many teens.

Consequences of Teenage DUI Convictions

Punishments for teenagers that are found guilty of a DUI vary by state, but are generally harsher for first time offenders than are punishments given to adult first time offenders. This is because minors face penalties for both underage drinking and for driving under the influence. If the minor's blood alcohol content (BAC) is anywhere from 0.05 – 0.07 percent and above, they can be charged with underage DUI and an adult DUI, which can increase the penalties further.

Often other charges will accompany the DUI offense, such as violation of Child Endangerment Laws, minor in possession of alcohol, possession of an altered or fictitious ID card, soliciting alcohol from an adult, and distributing alcohol to other minors. In most states, the minor’s DUI will be charged as a class one misdemeanor, which will remain on their record as an adult. The court may also impose community service as a punishment and up to thousands of dollars in fines. The teen’s license may also be suspended for up to two years and many states will require the minor to submit proof of financial responsibility before their license is reinstated.

Jail Time and other Penalties for Teen DUI

In some states, a teen DUI conviction can result in up to one year in jail for a first offense. Minors that have been caught drunk driving more than once, as well as minors who are involved in drunk driving accidents, will always receive a jail sentence. Sentences range from a few days to several years, depending on the severity of the case.

A teen DUI conviction can also result in probation for a period of 3-5 years. The minor may also be ordered to undergo a diversion program, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) or other drug and alcohol education classes. If the minor’s BAC is especially high, he or she may have to complete an inpatient alcohol treatment program.

After the teen or minor has his license reinstated, he or she may still have to drive under the watchful eye of the courts. In these cases, the court may order the minor to install an ignition interlock device on his or her car or on the car that the minor drives the most frequently. This will have to be done at the minor’s own expense. 

In some cases, the court may choose to impound the car, instead of requiring an ignition interlock device. Further, hardship or conditional licenses are not as widely available for minors convicted of DUIs. A hardship or conditional license is granted in cases where the convicted must drive his car in order to commute to work and school. These types of licenses allow the convicted minor to drive to locations approved by the courts, and nowhere else.

Consequences for Refusing Alcohol Testing in Suspected DUI Stops

Minors that refuse to submit to alcohol testing may lose their license for up to three years in some states. This is because most state laws use the implied consent principle, which says that once you are given a license to drive on public roads and highways, you implicitly give your consent to be tested for sobriety. Refusal to submit to testing is often seen as an admission of guilt. Further, this may not prevent a DUI charge, since the police can use other evidence to show that the teenager was under the influence, such as erratic driving or the smell of alcohol in the minor’s breath.

What this means is, if the minor refuses to submit to testing and is convicted of a DUI, he or she will receive a consecutive license suspension for both offenses. In most states, minors that refuse to submit to testing face the same legal and social consequences as an underage DUI. 

Other Consequences of Teenage Drunk Driving Convictions

Aside from the harsh criminal and civil penalties given for an underage DUI, there are grave social consequences for a minor convicted of a DUI. A minor who is convicted of DUI must disclose this information on all college applications. This may not prevent the minor from getting into college, but it will certainly be a strike against them. Failure to list the DUI on the application can result in automatic dismissal if the college later learns of the DUI.

In many states, students that are convicted of DUIs cannot continue their majors in education or pre-law. Further, starting a career with a DUI conviction may be difficult for the minor. Many jobs ask applicants to list any prior convictions. Since most states classify a DUI conviction as a Class 1 misdemeanor, the minor's record will be blemished well into adulthood.

While a prior conviction will not be an absolute bar to employment, it may sometimes sway an employer’s decision to hire them. A civil judgment against a minor can also last years, meaning that their future wages can be garnished. The teenager may also face social stigma as well and incarceration could mean a loss of employment and educational possibilities.

Getting Help

While the punishments for underage drinking and teanage drunk driving are tough, it is important to know that the minor still has the same rights in the legal system as adults. This means that the prosecutor must show all the elements of the charges, including that the minor was driving and that the stop was for a legitimate reason. Because of the penalties and life consequences that a DUI will have for a minor, it usually makes sense to try and fight the DUI in court. Contact a DUI attorney for help.

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